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Pro Tips For Buying Sleeping Bags

Pro Tips For Buying Sleeping Bags

By Michael Lanza

Finding a sleeping bag that’s right for you may be the most confusing gear-buying task. Getting the right one is critical to sleeping comfortably in the backcountry, and your bag could save your life in an emergency. But with the myriad choices out there, how do you tell them apart, beyond temperature rating and price? I’ve slept in many, many bags as a gear tester for well over two decades for Backpacker magazine and this blog, in all seasons, in temperatures from very mild to -30° F. (Mild is more pleasant.) In this article, I’ll share what I’ve learned about picking out a sleeping bag that will be ideal for your body and your adventures.

General Tips For Buying a Sleeping Bag

•    Know your own body. Do you get cold easily or are you a furnace? Women tend to get cold more easily, and this is a simple function of physics: Women often have a higher ratio of body surface area to mass compared to men, so their bodies lose heat more readily. Those women are more comfortable in a bag made for women, which is shaped differently than a men’s bag and typically has extra insulation in areas like the feet.
•    If you get cold easily, get a bag rated 20 to 25 degrees colder than the coldest temperatures you plan to sleep outside in.
•    People who don’t get cold easily will be more comfortable in a bag rated to within 10 to 15 degrees of the coldest temperatures you plan to sleep outside in—and possibly even a bag rated right around the coldest temp you’ll encounter, provided you have extra clothing to put on, just in case. (I’ve spent many nights around freezing perfectly warm enough in a bag rated 32° F.) Being too hot is no more comfortable than being too cold, and having a bag much warmer than needed means you’re carrying superfluous weight and bulk. (See my tips on lightening your pack weight.

Got an all-time favorite campsite? See “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”


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See my "10 Pro Tips: Staying Warm in a Sleeping Bag."
Click this photo to read my “10 Pro Tips: Staying Warm in a Sleeping Bag.”

Down Vs. Synthetic Bags

Down has traditionally been lighter, more packable, and warmer than many synthetic insulations; but once wet, synthetics still kept you fairly warm, while down feathers become all but useless at retaining heat. Today, the lines between down and synthetic have been blurred somewhat with the development of high-quality, lightweight and compact synthetic insulations like PrimaLoft, and water-resistant down, which retains its ability to trap heat even when wet. 

Down is more packable and very durable, so it still holds an advantage as the insulation of choice if you don’t expect to get that bag wet; and water-resistant down enhances your bag’s performance in common circumstances where it may get damp, such as when condensation builds up inside a tent. Still, even water-resistant down, once saturated, loses much of its ability to keep you warm, and drying out any bag is extremely difficult, if not impossible, in prolonged, wet weather. Synthetic insulation remains the best choice for extended trips in wet environments.

Get the right tent for you. See my “Gear Review: The 5 Best Backpacking Tents
and my “5 Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent.”

. . .

See my “10 Pro Tips: Staying Warm in a Sleeping Bag” and all of my reviews of sleeping bags and air mattresses and sleeping pads that I like at The Big Outside.


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See also my related stories:

5 Tips For Finding the Right Backpack

5 Tips For Spending Less on Backpacking and Hiking Gear

5 Tips For How to Buy a Backpacking Tent

A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking

Ask Me: How Do We Begin Lightening Up Our Backpacking Gear?

About The Author

Michael Lanza

A former field editor and primary gear reviewer for Backpacker Magazine, Michael Lanza created The Big Outside to share stories and images from his many backpacking, hiking, and other outdoor adventures, as well as expert tips and gear reviews to help readers plan and pull off their own great adventures.


  1. Avatar

    Hi Michael,

    Have you tried any of the ultralight quilts from smaller companies (Katabatic Gear, Nunatak, etc.)? They seem like a great alternative to three-season bags, especially for side and stomach sleepers who don’t usually use a hood. It’s a bit difficult to find reviews of them though, as they aren’t as widely used as mummy bags. I was just wondering if you’ve had any positive or negative experiences with them


  2. Avatar

    I think a full-length zipper is most-useful in the summer. It lets you open the bag fully and use it as a quilt instead. You’re right that being too warm is uncomfortable, and it makes you sweat. That moisture is bad no matter what kind of insulation you use.

    That seems to be the problem with getting wet. I’m knocking on wood as I type this, but I’ve never completely soaked my gear while fording a creek or capsizing a boat. It’s condensation and possibly sweat that are going to wet your bag, I think.

    I’m starting to experiment with carrying a lighter and less warm bag than most people would suggest, and making up the difference by sleeping in a down hoodie jacket and down booties. (Feathered Friends makes down socks with a removable boot shell.) You only use the bag when you’re sleeping, but the jacket and boots are useful in camp (stargazing for example) and sometimes when you stop on the trail. So I feel like this is probably a good way to split up the weight. But I need more trips to test this idea.

    • MichaelALanza

      Good points, Forrest. I agree about the full-length zipper being most useful in mild temperatures. I’ve rarely gotten my sleeping bag very wet, partly because I will use a waterproof dry bag-style stuff sack whenever I’m on a water-based trip or backpacking in a situation where I could get very wet. I like the Sea to Summit eVent Compression Dry Sacks for that:

      But in general, the more common reason a bag gets wet is from condensation, either on the interior tent walls or directly on your bag (from body heat), which occurs in colder temps, i.e., just above or below freezing. If it’s below freezing, you can conveniently knock the frost or ice off your bag first thing in the morning. If the condensation isn’t frozen, you can wipe surface dampness off the bag’s shell. But on prolonged, below-freezing trips, condensation can collect inside the bag’s insulation, so it becomes important to dry the bag in warm sunshine whenever possible. A synthetic bag is obviously better if the insulation gets damp, but they’re very bulky. The new types of water-resistant down bags are a good choice for long, cold trips.

      I also prefer to take as light a bag as I know I can get away with using on a trip, given the anticipated coldest temps, and using my extra clothes for added warmth as needed.


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Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside and former Northwest Editor at Backpacker magazine. Click my photo to learn more about me and my blog. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside now to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. And click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

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